2,000 Striking York University Staff Forced Back To Work Without a Contract

Heather Gies

Contract professors join graduate teaching and research assistants and their children from York and University of Toronto at a "stroller rally" on March 11 in Toronto, Ontario. University workers went on strike for several months in favor of better wages and job security. (Photo by Vince Talotta/Getty Images)

The work­ers said neolib­er­al poli­cies had made their jobs more pre­car­i­ous. Ontario’s new right-wing gov­ern­ment didn’t care. 

Class­es are start­ing at Toronto’s York Uni­ver­si­ty after Canada’s longest-ever post-sec­ondary strike came to an abrupt end this sum­mer with­out a new agree­ment in place for 2,000 con­tract teach­ing and research staff who walked off the job five months ago.

The new­ly-elect­ed right-wing gov­ern­ment in the province of Ontario passed back-to-work leg­is­la­tion at the end July that forced the employ­ees whose col­lec­tive agree­ment expired last August to pack up the pick­et lines and return to work.

While many under­grad­u­ate stu­dents are relieved to get their aca­d­e­m­ic sched­ules back on track, union mem­bers are left in a lurch as the con­cerns that prompt­ed the strike remain unaddressed.

Demands for bet­ter grad­u­ate fund­ing, job secu­ri­ty and work­place acces­si­bil­i­ty in the work­place were cen­tral to the strike. The union also raised alarm over increas­ing­ly pre­car­i­ous employ­ment for con­tract teach­ers and researchers, one symp­tom of uni­ver­si­ties dou­bling down on a neolib­er­al busi­ness model.

Devin Lefeb­vre, chair­per­son of the CUPE 3903 union that rep­re­sents 3,000 teach­ing assis­tants, con­tract fac­ul­ty, and grad­u­ate and research assis­tants at York Uni­ver­si­ty, slammed the back-to-work leg­is­la­tion as an affront to work­ers’ rights.

Leg­is­lat­ing work­ers back to work rides roughshod over our col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights as well as our right to strike. And in this instance it’s reward­ing an employ­er for bad behav­ior,” he told In These Times, stress­ing that York repeat­ed­ly refused to bargain.

The back-to-work leg­is­la­tion forces a bind­ing medi­a­tion process in which a third par­ty will impose a new col­lec­tive agree­ment to set­tle the dispute.

This is a way for [the uni­ver­si­ty] to avoid actu­al­ly nego­ti­at­ing an agree­ment,” Lefeb­vre, a PhD stu­dent and teach­ing assis­tant, argued. It has already put a chill on labor relations.”

York did not respond to ques­tions from In These Times. In a state­ment in response to the back-to-work order, the university’s Pres­i­dent and Vice-Chan­cel­lor Rhon­da Lenton described the five months of the strike as chal­leng­ing” and wel­comed the leg­is­la­tion after the efforts by both par­ties were unable to lead to a nego­ti­at­ed settlement.”

Mimi Sala­mi, a fourth-year health stud­ies stu­dent from Nige­ria, said the strike was annoy­ing” and dis­ap­point­ing.” She blamed both sides for drag­ging out the dis­pute at stu­dents’ expense.

Stu­dents are real­ly strug­gling,” she said. As an inter­na­tion­al stu­dent, Sala­mi pays tuition fees more than three times more expen­sive than those of her domes­tic peers. The main pri­or­i­ty should be the students.”

Karmah Dudin, a fourth-year polit­i­cal sci­ence stu­dent, sym­pa­thized with stu­dents frus­trat­ed by the strike, but argued that win­ning favor­able con­di­tions for edu­ca­tors would be in stu­dents’ best inter­ests. She was active in the stu­dent move­ment called Reclaim YorkU that occu­pied York’s Sen­ate Cham­bers in sol­i­dar­i­ty with CUPE 3903 for near­ly three months, redub­bing the room the Stu­dent Cham­bers” to pres­sure the uni­ver­si­ty to can­cel class­es and refund stu­dents’ tuition. Nei­ther demand was met.

We felt that the demo­c­ra­t­ic process was being vio­lat­ed,” Dudin said, argu­ing the root prob­lem lies in uni­ver­si­ty governance.

Some 1,000 con­tract fac­ul­ty mem­bers mak­ing up one of the three CUPE 3903 bar­gain­ing units that went on strike on March 5 already vot­ed in June to accept an offer from the uni­ver­si­ty and return to work.

The remain­ing 2,000 work­ers now wait for the medi­a­tion process to deter­mine their con­tract. Lefeb­vre argued that forced arbi­tra­tion under­mines union pow­er and deprives work­ers of a chance to shape their own work­ing conditions.

Ontario’s Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­v­a­tives, a cen­ter-right par­ty pushed fur­ther right under its cur­rent lead­er­ship, con­vened a rare sum­mer ses­sion to pass the omnibus bill con­tain­ing the back-to-work leg­is­la­tion. An ear­li­er attempt to pass back-to-work leg­is­la­tion under the Lib­er­al gov­ern­ment had failed.

The Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­v­a­tives won a major­i­ty gov­ern­ment in Ontario in June for the first time in 15 years, led by Pre­mier Doug Ford, broth­er of the late for­mer may­or of Toron­to, Rob Ford, who gained inter­na­tion­al noto­ri­ety for a crack cocaine-smok­ing scan­dal. The new provin­cial government’s urgency to quash the CUPE 3903 strike sets the tone as Ontario set­tles in for four years under the politi­cian who has been described as Canada’s Don­ald Trump.

Get­ting the two par­ties — the uni­ver­si­ty and the two bar­gain­ing units of CUPE 3903 — back to the bar­gain­ing table was a top priority…to allow stu­dents to com­plete their class­es and ensure that the fall semes­ter isn’t dis­rupt­ed,” the Office of the Min­is­ter of Labour said in an emailed state­ment to In These Times. The Back to Class Act was not about the union, it was not about the uni­ver­si­ty, it was about the more than 45,000 students.”

CUPE 3903 mem­bers car­ry out 60 per­cent of all teach­ing at York.

Esca­la­tion in Hostility”

York admin­is­tra­tion, many media reports, and an inquiry into labor rela­tions ordered by the provin­cial Min­is­ter of Labour in April framed the sit­u­a­tion as an impasse” between the uni­ver­si­ty and the union. CUPE 3903 disagreed.

The employ­er time and again refused to bar­gain,” Lefeb­vre said, accus­ing York of resort­ing to more and more aggres­sive forms of nego­ti­a­tion,” includ­ing intim­i­da­tion tac­tics such as hir­ing a pri­vate secu­ri­ty con­trac­tor and film­ing union mem­bers on the pick­et lines. Mean­while, York accused the union of intim­i­dat­ing uni­ver­si­ty officials.

Stu­dent activist Dudin said the uni­ver­si­ty also demo­nized” the Reclaim YorkU move­ment and tar­get­ed the occu­pa­tion with an intim­i­da­tion cam­paign, includ­ing video surveillance.

Lind­say Hard­ing, a doc­tor­al stu­dent and teach­ing assis­tant in lin­guis­tics who served as a pick­et coor­di­na­tor, not­ed an esca­la­tion in hos­til­i­ty” com­pared to the last CUPE 3903 strike in 2015, which last­ed near­ly one month. This time, Hard­ing wit­nessed two hit and run inci­dents, saw a pick­eter get punched, and dealt with peo­ple ques­tion­ing the legal­i­ty of the strike.” She sus­pect­ed the lev­el of aggres­sion” was fueled at least in part by the university’s pub­lic rela­tions campaign.

Mai­ja Dun­can, CUPE 3903 com­mu­ni­ca­tions offi­cer, accused the uni­ver­si­ty of wag­ing a smear cam­paign” against edu­ca­tors and pay­ing more atten­tion to con­trol­ling the nar­ra­tive in the media than sit­ting down to bargain.

It was an attempt to make us bar­gain with our­selves,” said Dun­can, who is also a PhD stu­dent and teach­ing assis­tant. What they were look­ing for was full capitulation.”

In June, York accused CUPE 3903 of not giv­ing the union mem­ber­ship an oppor­tu­ni­ty to con­sid­er the university’s offers and declared arbi­tra­tion inevitable.”

Work­ing and Strik­ing in the Neolib­er­al University

The strike joins a stream of edu­ca­tion sec­tor strikes across the Unit­ed States this year — includ­ing statewide teacher strikes in Ari­zona, Okla­homa, and West Vir­ginia and parts of Col­orado — and the his­toric high­er edu­ca­tion strike in the Unit­ed King­dom.

York has been prone to strikes for decades. CUPE 3903’s will­ing­ness to strike has been cred­it­ed for ensur­ing con­tract aca­d­e­m­ic staff at York have enjoyed bet­ter con­tracts com­pared to their peers at oth­er Cana­di­an universities.

Ongo­ing dis­con­tent stems in part from the deep­en­ing of what researchers call the neolib­er­al uni­ver­si­ty,” char­ac­ter­ized by expand­ed man­age­r­i­al and admin­is­tra­tive staff, a focus on quan­ti­ta­tive aca­d­e­m­ic results, high­er tuition fees, and grow­ing reliance on a pre­car­i­ous teach­ing workforce.

Accord­ing to Alessan­dro Delfan­ti, assis­tant pro­fes­sor of new media and cul­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to, a key con­se­quence of uni­ver­si­ties’ neolib­er­al turn is grow­ing inequal­i­ty in work­ing conditions.

Pre­car­i­ous staff allows a uni­ver­si­ty to save mon­ey, is more flex­i­ble, and can be dis­posed of in case for exam­ple of drops in enroll­ment rates,” he wrote in an email to In These Times, adding that pre­car­i­ous employ­ment can be high­ly stress­ful. It is both a polit­i­cal and finan­cial issue.”

Many media reports depict­ed the strike as a bat­tle for high­er wages, but the call for wages to keep pace with infla­tion was a small issue com­pared to the union’s top demands for pro­tec­tion of grad­u­ate stu­dent fund­ing, job secu­ri­ty for con­tract fac­ul­ty, equi­ty and acces­si­bil­i­ty in the work­place, and restor­ing the more than 800 jobs that had been cut from one of the union’s four bar­gain­ing units.

Busi­ness as Usual”

Unlike the dur­ing CUPE 3903’s 2015 strike, this time York refused to can­cel class­es. For stu­dent activist Dudin, the move was as an attempt to main­tain an image of busi­ness as usu­al” on cam­pus. The result for stu­dents was high­ly con­fus­ing, as some fac­ul­ty chose to sus­pend class­es any­way, while many stu­dents were not well informed of their right to refuse to cross pick­et lines with­out penal­ty, said Dudin.

Cours­es taught by strik­ing edu­ca­tors, put on hold about two thirds of the way through the semes­ter, remained in lim­bo for months. York did not reim­burse stu­dents for the class­es dis­rupt­ed by the strike, but instead offered stu­dents an assessed grade” based on 70 per­cent com­ple­tion of course­work or an oppor­tu­ni­ty to take the course a sec­ond time free of charge. Oth­er cours­es were final­ized in a reme­di­a­tion peri­od in July and August after the gov­ern­ment leg­is­lat­ed the union back to work. Stu­dents also had an option to defer com­ple­tion of course­work until December.

All of this cre­at­ed con­fu­sion for both stu­dents and educators.

Sala­mi, the health stud­ies stu­dent from Nige­ria, said retak­ing cours­es was not an accept­able option — she still hopes to grad­u­ate on sched­ule while work­ing a part time job at least 20 hours per week — and opt­ed for the assessed grades.

CUPE 3903’s Lefeb­vre believes the assessed grades were based on incon­sis­tent cri­te­ria and threat­ened to under­mine the institution’s aca­d­e­m­ic integrity.

Dudin argued that the entire process laid bare the under­ly­ing prob­lem of edu­ca­tion being treat­ed as a prod­uct to be bought and sold, where stu­dents are cash cows” that uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tors refer to as Busi­ness Income Units” or BIUs.

What we are try­ing to build here is a move­ment strong enough to be able to chal­lenge tuition,” she said, adding that Reclaim YorkU is con­duct­ing stu­dent sur­veys to shape its next campaign.

Accord­ing to Enda Bro­phy, asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and labor stud­ies at Simon Fras­er Uni­ver­si­ty, neolib­er­al­iza­tion of uni­ver­si­ties has result­ed in see­ing stu­dents as con­sumers mak­ing an invest­ment in their edu­ca­tion.” He told In These Times in an email that neolib­er­al­iza­tion also has expand­ed bureau­cra­cy in ways that have very lit­tle to do with the core mis­sion of a uni­ver­si­ty: teaching.”

York’s com­mu­ni­ty news­pa­per, Excal­ibur, has report­ed that the salaries of top exec­u­tives and high-lev­el admin­is­tra­tors have climbed con­sid­er­ably in recent years. Obtain­ing a clear break­down of how York and oth­er uni­ver­si­ties spend their bud­gets is dif­fi­cult, but the Ontario Con­fed­er­a­tion of Uni­ver­si­ty Fac­ul­ty Asso­ci­a­tions has advo­cat­ed for finan­cial lit­er­a­cy in order to scru­ti­nize uni­ver­si­ty spending as admin­is­tra­tive costs across Ontario uni­ver­si­ties have grown.

While York pub­licly wel­comed back CUPE 3903 employ­ees, lin­guis­tics teacher Hard­ing claimed the uni­ver­si­ty appeared to want to make the process as unpleas­ant, harsh, and bru­tal as pos­si­ble to intim­i­date mem­bers from going on strike again.” She point­ed to uncer­tain­ty about whether or not teach­ing assis­tants will be fair­ly com­pen­sat­ed for the work required to final­ize grades, which could take until December.

Bro­phy, for­mer­ly a CUPE 3903 mem­ber, believes York wants to squelch the union’s peri­od­ic strikes.

My sense is the uni­ver­si­ty has decid­ed that enough is enough and it will go as far as it needs to to break its union,” Bro­phy argued, adding that he saw this as a dras­tic move” that will have long-stand­ing con­se­quences for York’s rela­tion­ship with its work­force. The uni­ver­si­ty is assert­ing dis­ci­pline over and above all oth­er concerns.”

For Hard­ing, man­dat­ing teach­ing and research assis­tants back to work with­out a new agree­ment in place has been cause for con­cern, as it leaves union mem­bers with­out clear back-to-work pro­to­cols and anti-reprisals protections.

Accord­ing to CUPE 3903’s Lefeb­vre, five union mem­bers and three under­grad­u­ate stu­dents who sup­port­ed the strike are fac­ing dis­ci­pli­nary process­es for fail­ure to adhere to York’s stu­dent code of conduct. 

This is very clear­ly retal­i­a­tion by an admin­is­tra­tion that is aim­ing to scare oth­er stu­dents from speak­ing out and hold­ing York to account,” Lefeb­vre said, slam­ming the process as biased and flawed.”

Pres­i­dent and Vice-Chan­cel­lor Lenton wrote in a let­ter to CUPE 3903 in June that uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tors are fun­da­men­tal­ly opposed to reprisals or retal­i­a­tion of any kind.” York did not respond to In These Times’ inquiry about whether dis­ci­pli­nary actions are now being tak­en against stu­dents involved direct­ly or indi­rect­ly in sup­port­ing the strike. 

Con­ser­v­a­tives at the Helm in Ontario

Rob De Luca, direc­tor of the Democ­ra­cy and Rule of Law pro­gram with the Cana­di­an Civ­il Lib­er­ties Asso­ci­a­tion, believes the back-to-work leg­is­la­tion rep­re­sents an ero­sion” of work­er rights on a nation­al scale.

The new leg­is­la­tion threat­ens to chill the rights of work­ers by pro­vid­ing employ­ers with a pow­er­ful weapon by which to avoid good faith col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing,” De Luca wrote in an email to In These Times.

A 2015 Supreme Court deci­sion uphold­ing the right to strike served as a warn­ing to gov­ern­ments seek­ing back-to-work orders to tread care­ful­ly or face a poten­tial con­sti­tu­tion­al challenge.

In Ontario, back-to-work leg­is­la­tion end­ed a Toron­to tran­sit work­er strike in 2008. The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment used back-to-work orders under Con­ser­v­a­tive for­mer Prime Min­is­ter Stephen Harp­er to end a 2012 rail work­er strike and a 2011 postal work­er lock­out. In 2016, an Ontario court found the 2011 back-to-work order uncon­sti­tu­tion­al for vio­lat­ing 48,000 postal work­ers’ right to strike.

De Luca said the most recent back-to-work leg­is­la­tion would be sub­ject to exact­ing scruti­ny” if tak­en to court. CUPE 3903 plans to launch a con­sti­tu­tion­al challenge.

In the mean­time, CUPE 3903’s Dun­can said a fair rul­ing from the arbi­tra­tor in the bind­ing medi­a­tion process would be ben­e­fi­cial to help relax ten­sions — for now.

The rela­tion­ship between the union and the uni­ver­si­ty has always been dif­fi­cult. But it is bro­ken now,” she said. The strike is over, but the bat­tle continues.”

Heather Gies is a free­lance jour­nal­ist who has writ­ten on human rights, social move­ments and envi­ron­men­tal issues for Al Jazeera, The Guardian, In These Times and Nation­al Geo­graph­ic. Fol­low her on twit­ter @HeatherGies.
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